Catholic Ceremonies – Division of Time in the Church

litugical yearThe liturgical year is divided into different periods: Advent, Christmas, Septuagesima, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Before explaining these divisions of the liturgical year, it will be well to speak of the division of time in the Catholic Church, and under that head we will say what is necessary on the months, weeks, days, vigils, feasts, octaves, and ember-days.

The Months

The year was originally composed of ten months; and as this is the time that elapses between one inundation of the Nile and the next, it was supposed that this division was borrowed from the Egyptians.

Begun on the 25th of March, at the vernal equinox, the year ended on December 25th, at the winter solstice. Following their order, the months were called first, second, third, and so on. This primitive way of designating them remains to the months of September, October, November, and December, the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the Egyptian year. Later, the course of the sun having been taken as the base of the division of the year, and this orb making its annual revolution in 365 days and some hours, there were added to the ancient year two new months, January and February. The former opened the year, and its name came from Janus, adored among the Romans as the principle and the end of all things, and for this reason represented with two faces. This month seemed to make a salutation of farewell to the year just closing, and to look a welcome to the new.

The second month, February, took its name from Februa, one of the titles of Pluto, god of the lower regions. This was in memory of the sad feasts celebrated at that time in honor of the dead and their king. (In France this month was long called the month of purgatory.)

As to the other months, they lost their original appellations and received others. Mars, the god of war, gave his name to the third month, because at this time the troops left their winter quarters to enter upon the campaign. Venus, or Aphrodite, whose feasts were celebrated in the first three nights of the fourth month, gave to it her name, April. May, which brings to nature her pure skies and perfumed flowers, was thus called from Maia, the mother of the earth and all the forces which animate it. June owes its name to Junius Brutus, who made this month illustrious by the expulsion of the Tarquins.

July saw the birth of Julius Caesar, hence its name.

Augustus, his successor, for the same reason left his name to the following month. The four last, why it is unknown, preserved their original names of the order of their coming, although they are no longer the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months, but the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year.

Each one of these twelve months had thirty days, which made a year of three hundred and sixty days. But as it was really a year of three hundred and sixty-five days, the five days that remained were divided between January, March, May, July, and October, which then counted thirty-one days. But Augustus could not endure that his month should be shorter than that of his predecessor, and a day was taken from February, the sad month of the dead, to be given to August. Example is contagious. The Roman astronomers thought that the last month of the year should not be shorter than the first; they took then a second day from February to give to December, and this unlucky month, doubly shortened by these foolish pretensions, counts now ordinarily but twenty-eight days.


Neither the Greeks nor the Romans knew the division of months into weeks. The former divided them into three decades, or periods of ten days; the latter into three terms, which were: the Calends, the Nones, and the Ides. The first of the month was called Calends, from an old Latin word which signifies to call, because the people called together were told on that day of the feasts which were to be celebrated in that month. The second day of the reunion of the people was called Nones, or the ninth, because it preceded the Ides by nine days. Then the Ides, from the old verb iduo, to divide, fell on about the fifteenth of the month, and divided it nearly equally.

The Church, which in her liturgy speaks the language of the Romans, has preserved also the division of the months as it existed among this people. Today certain acts of the Roman court are still dated the Calends, Nones, and Ides.

It is truer, however, to say that the division of months and weeks was generally known to antiquity. “The week,” says the celebrated Laplace, “since the highest antiquity, in which its origin is lost, comes down without interruption throughout the centuries, and mingles with the successive calendars of different peoples. It is very remarkable that it is found the same over all the earth. Perhaps it is the oldest and most indisputable monument of human knowledge. It seems to indicate a common source from which it has spread.”

What can this source be unless it is the commemoration of the creation of the world in six days, and of the rest of the Creator upon the seventh?


The Orientals were the first who gave to the days of the week the names of the planets; they called each day by the name of the planet which presided over its first hour. Thus, according to their astronomical tables, the sun presided at the first hour of the first day of the week; the moon at the first hour of the second day; Mars at that of the third day; Mercury over the fourth; Jupiter over the fifth; Venus over the sixth, and Saturn over the seventh. Hence it followed that the first day was consecrated to the sun, the second took the name of the moon, and so on with the others.

However, from the time of the apostles, the week-days had names exclusively Christian. Saint John already calls the first day “the Lord’s day” (Apocalypse 1:10). The others were designated under the name of ferias; second, third, fourth feria, beginning with Sunday. The seventh feria kept its name of Sabbatum, day of the Sabbath.

The word feria comes from the Latin feriare, to immolate, or feriari, to rest one’s self, and designated among the Romans those days of sacrifice when business was suspended. The Christians, for whom all days without distinction should be consecrated to the worship of God and be/erias by the cessation of sin, called all the days of the week ferias. “The Christians,” says Origen, “consider all days like days of the Lord, and even like the day of the Pasch, because every day the heavenly Lamb immolates Himself for them and is eaten by them.” Each day of the week recalls to Christians some pious mystery. Sunday was the witness of the glories of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the miracles of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles. It was on Sunday that God created light; “in Christianity,” says Bellarmin, “this day honors the double birth of Jesus Christ,* that of the Church, and the creation of the world.” The Holy Trinity then has a just title to receive on that day the homage of man which the ancient Church has consecrated to it. Has not the first day of the week been illumined by the splendors of creation, the resurrection of the Son, and the descent of the Holy Ghost?

Monday was consecrated to the consolation of the dead, as All Souls’ follows All Saints’ day; Tuesday to the honor of the angels, and especially to the angel guardians; Wednesday was for a long time dedicated to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, as the day, following tradition, commemorative of their arrival in Rome and their glorious martyrdom. Saint Joseph has replaced the holy apostles. To Thursday is attached the remembrance of the Blessed Eucharist. Especially since the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, this day seems destined to be a continual octave of the mystery of our altars, as Sunday is the unceasingly renewed octave of the feast of Easter.

Friday is consecrated to the Passion of Our Lord, and Saturday to the Blessed Virgin. If the Church honors the day of the martyrdom of her children, could she forget the sorrows of Mary on the day after the passion? At the foot of the cross, feeling in her mother’s heart the steel-clad points of the nails and lance, the bitterness of the blasphemies, and of the gall offered to drink, she was more than martyr: this is the expression of the holy doctors. The solitude of the following day, the absence of her Jesus, the memory always before her eyes of His passion, His death and burial, pierced her torn heart with a new sword.


The Christians formerly passed the night preceding a solemn feast in prayer in the church; this holy practice bore the name of vigil, or watch. Several motives recommended it to the piety of the faithful. During the night the Word of God was made flesh; during the night He came into the world; during the night He will come again to judge mankind. Grave abuses led to the suppression of these holy meetings for nocturnal prayer, the vigil of feasts. That of Christmas, by a privilege easily understood, was alone excepted.

But the name of vigil was always retained for the day that preceded a feast, and most frequently the primitive fast was preserved.

The vigils of primitive institution, and which for this reason enjoy the privilege of never being omitted, are: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Others have been instituted later for certain feasts of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. These are: the Assumption, All Saints, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the feasts of the apostles, and the feast of Saint Lawrence. All vigils supposed a fast and abstinence.

Ecclesiastical discipline has varied on this question, yielding to the needs of people and time; in America today fast and abstinence are practised on the vigils of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Assumption, and All Saints. All other vigils are observed without fast or abstinence, and they are confined to the office which is assigned to them.

According to the way we keep them the vigils render the feasts more solemn. By mortification they make us compassionate the trials of the saints during their earthly pilgrimage; they say to us that to be glorified with them it is necessary to share their suffering, and that penitence is the gate of heaven.


The word feast comes from the Greek festia, the domestic hearth, family reunion, from whence the name of festival given to the repast which accompanies these reunions. Among the Christian feasts some are movable, that is to say, that the day upon which they fall varies; of these are Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, Trinity. All the others are celebrated each year on the same date; for this reason they are called immovable.

Cardinal feasts are those which are followed by a certain number of Sundays, such as Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost; it is upon these that all the plan of the divine office of these Sundays turns. Feasts were primitively celebrated upon the days on which they fell. We have now in America but six Holy-days of obligation; these are: the Circumcision, Ascension of Our Lord, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas day. Three others, under the name of transferred feasts, are celebrated on the following Sunday: Epiphany, Corpus Christi, Sts. Peter and Paul; the others are suppressed. The Church nevertheless, as in those happier days when the faithful united in the temples to keep the feasts, still offers the sacrifice especially for them.

The feasts are not all celebrated with the same solemnity. Their variety is compared by Saint Denis to the celestial hierarchy. For the saints who reign in heaven are not the same in merit and in glory. “One,” says Saint Paul, speaking of the glory of the elect, “is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, and another the glory of the stars. For star differeth from star in glory.” (1st Corinthians 15:41)

Thus, according to the renown of the saints, the Church on earth has established a rite more or less solemn to honor their memory each year. Feasts are doubles, semi-doubles, or simples. The first are so called because they had originally a double office, that of the feria and that of the feast. The second have a demi-office, half of the feast and half of the feria. The third have a simple memento in the office of the day, by the prayer and the lesson of Matins.


The eighth day which follows certain feasts is celebrated as solemnly as the feast itself, under the name of Octave, and the intervening days are called “days of the octave.”

The octaves, intended to solemnize the greatest feasts, originated with the Jews. Solomon willed that the dedication of the temple should last eight days; the same thing occurred at its re-establishment under Zorobabel. Following the steps of the old law, the Church celebrated the most solemn feasts with octaves. In the first place Easter was prolonged for an entire week. Following came the octave of Pentecost, then that of Christmas, and the Epiphany. The feasts of saints had none until the eighth century.

The octave was in the beginning but a repetition of the feast, and only on the eighth day. The intermediate days made no memorial of the feast; later they had an office, and the solemn feasts, even of saints, lasted eight days. As to its meaning, octave is simply the eighth.

The number eight, in the language of the fathers, represented the eternal day of judgment and the resurrection of the flesh; in other words, the eternity which follows the seventh period of the world. The intention of the Church is to carry our thoughts to the unending feasts of heaven. The vigil, with its severe penitence, has associated us with the laborious life of Our Lord and His saints; the octave leads us to assist at their triumphs.

Five octaves are established to honor Our Lord; they are: Christmas, the Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, and Corpus Christi. Three feasts of the Blessed Virgin have octaves: the Nativity, Assumption, Immaculate Conception. The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, AH Saints, the feasts of Saint Stephen, Saint John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, Saint Lawrence, have their particular octave. It is the same with the dedication of a church and the feast of a patron.


This name is given to the fast which the Church observes at the beginning of each one of the four seasous of the year. In instituting them the Church wished in the first place to oppose the practice of penitence to the follies and disorders of the Bacchanalia, which the pagans renewed four times a year. Besides this, God has always shown a holy jealousy for the first-fruits of everything: to Him belongs the Sunday, the first day of the week; to Him then should be consecrated the first week of each season, as well as the first day of the year. The days of the week chosen for ember-days are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. From the beginning of Christianity these days were sanctified by fasting and assistance at the holy sacrifice, because of the memories which they recall: Wednesday saw the infamous sale of Judas; Friday was the day of Jesus Christ’s death; Saturday that of His rest in the sepulchre. If we consider the number of days consecrated to the fast of the four seasons, twelve a year, it is impossible to doubt that the Church had another end in view than the expiation by penitence of the sins of which we are guilty – one day of expiation for each month of the year. (Saint Leonard, Sermon on the fast of the tenth month.) To mortification the Church joins prayer, to call down the dew of heaven upon the fruits of the earth, and to ask of God priests according to her heart. The ordinations take place on the Saturdays of the ember-days, and the Church has thought it suitable to beg, after the example of the apostles, by prayer and fasting, the light of the Holy Spirit in such an important action. Among these levites whom the hand of the bishop is to consecrate for eternity, there is one, perhaps, who will one day have the guidance of our soul; let us invoke for him all the apostolic graces.

– text taken from Catholic Ceremonies and Explanation of the Ecclesiastical Year, by Father Alfred Durand, published by Benziger Brothers, 1910; it has the Imprimatur of +Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, New York, 23 July 1896